Nowhere to Go, More Addicts on the Street and a Ringing Irony

Based on blog posts by Chris Lilienthal originally published here and here at Third and State.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports this morning on the impact of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett's proposed budget cuts on the lives of people in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Who is getting hit? Adults with disabilities, the homeless, people with mental-health illnesses, HIV patients needing hospice care, children aging out of foster care, and seniors, among others.

Miriam Hill, The Philadelphia InquirerPeople who will be affected by Corbett's cuts:

Brittany Stevens doesn't talk a lot, but she's a bit of a social butterfly. She was a prom queen and, after a recent performance of the musical Fela!, she spontaneously hugged the dancers, nearly tackling them in excitement.

But Brittany, 21, who is disabled and suffers from seizures, incontinence, hearing loss, and other problems, spends most of her days alone in her North Philadelphia home, while her mother, Harlena Morton, goes to work as a high-school counselor.

Morton had hoped to find Brittany a job in a workshop that employs disabled adults. Now that Gov. Corbett has proposed large cuts to social services programs, Morton fears that Brittany and thousands like her will never get off waiting lists for those spots and for other services...

In Philadelphia, the cuts total about $120 million, not including reductions in medical care, city officials say; across Pennsylvania, $317 million, according to state officials.

Making Super PACs Illegal.... How?

A new Washington Post- ABC News poll shows that almost 7 out of 10 voters believe that super PACs, the independent expenditure only committees created in the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, should be illegal. Super PACs are not responsible for all problems with American democracy, however, they do amplify those troubles so it is no surprise that the public is crying out in opposition to them. Unfortunately, due to the Court’s backwards interpretation of the first amendment, we cannot legislate away super PACs today. However, there are some very important steps that every level of government – from your city council to the White House - should take right now to mitigate the impact of super PACs before the 2012 election.

There are three main problems with super PACs: unlimited money, corporate money, and secret money.

Unlimited Money: Super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited funds from any given single source, which allows corporations and the ultra wealthy to directly translate economic success into political power. PennPIRG and Demos’ recent report Auctioning Democracy found that 96% of all super PAC funds came in contributions of $10,000 or more from just 1,096 sources. Forget the 1%, that political elite is actually the equivalent of .000351% of the population. In other words, unless you have $10,000 stashed away in a cookie jar to give to a political campaign, your contribution may be severely minimized.

The Return of Bigfoot: Telling the Truth about Welfare Spending in Pennsylvania

A blog post by Sharon Ward, originally published at Third and State.

BigfootYou may remember that the Commonwealth Foundation put out a report about welfare spending a couple of weeks ago that we likened to “Bigfoot” because it found something in the Department of Public Welfare — massive fraud, millions of non-working adults — that just didn’t exist.

I had a chance to debate Matt Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation on WITF’s Radio Smart Talk, and I thought it might be a good time to share the facts and give you my four big ideas about how we push back on the destructive framing that the “Bigfoot” report perpetuates.

First, let me give a shout out to the people who called in to Smart Talk to set the record straight on welfare spending and challenge Matt directly on his use of the welfare frame. It was clear to the listeners that Matt was quite deliberately trying to invoke the image of Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen by describing welfare as everything from afterschool programs to autism services. The audience wasn’t buying it and we shouldn’t allow it.

The first step  when talking about this issue, is to define welfare accurately.

1. Welfare is cash assistance.

Just what we Need! A new City Council Tax Break for the .0000. . . . .1%!

Hey, did you tune in to Bill Green's press conference on his bill to eliminate City business taxes on hedge fund and mutual fund companies and managers? Did you see the two day wall to wall coverage by the Inky on the role of these once upon a time taxpayers and the pros and cons of letting them become freeloaders? You didn't? Oh, that's probably because this is a totally stealth deal that none of the moving parties has actually wanted to talk about. Yes, the bill was introduced like any other bill, but without a word being said in the press about it. Yes, it had a public hearing last week, but without a word being said in the press about it. Yes, you can look in vain for the press release on bill 120007.

If you look it up on Council's database, you'll find that after its hearing, Bill 120007 was amended (who knows how) and reported out of committee with a recommendation that the rules be suspended to allow first reading at the next session of Council. That means that it's on a fast track for approval. Waiting all of two weeks before Council passes it is a no-no. It's apparently an emergency to establish that next year our dearly beloved local hedge managers and mutual fund managers will pay no business or net profit taxes. Philadelphia can only wait one week to get that vital interest taken care of after Council's Finance Committee rushed to the rescue last Tuesday. How much will Bill 120007 cost the City, a City that is losing over $40 million in state social services funding next year if Corbett has his way (which he probably will)? Who knows? Who cares? Let the good times roll for the really great corporate citizens of hedge fund and mutual fund world. Let's bring all the white collar bandits to Philadelphia to bring us their tax revenue . . . or, oh, I guess not that. I guess we just get the bragging rights.

50 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK, JFK USHERED IN MODERN CONSUMER PROTECTION ERA

People of almost any age know a lot about the Kennedy administration with its optimistic beginnings and its sudden, tragic end. Yet many have probably never heard of one of JFK's important legacies -- his declaration that consumers have rights that deserve protection.

Fifty years ago, on March 15, 1962, President Kennedy issued his "Special Message to the Congress on Protecting the Consumer Interest." While his ambitious agenda has not been fully realized, the sweep of his vision bears revisiting.

Kennedy said,

If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers.

So, he identified and then called for government action to protect four consumer rights: The right to safety; the right to be informed; the right to choose; and the right to be heard. Other presidents and consumer organizations have added to his work -- proposing rights to consumer education and consumer redress, for example -- but those important additions simply built upon JFK's robust platform.

Kennedy called for enactment of legislation to guarantee the efficacy and safety of prescription drugs and cosmetics because: "Thousands of women have suffered burns and other injuries to the eyes, skin and hair by untested or inadequately tested beauty aids." He called for new food safety rules, which finally passed in 2010.

Above all, Kennedy said, "protection of the public health is not a game."

He called for passage of "truth in lending" legislation to end "serious abuses." He demanded both nutrition and other packaging labeling: "Just as consumers have the right to know what is in their credit contract, so also do they have the right to know what is in the package they buy."

The Library in the City: a Panel Discussion

In conjunction with the release of a new report, Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative (of which I am a part) is hosting a panel discussion this Wednesday night on the role of the Free Library of Philadelphia and other big-city libraries in the 21st century. YPP favorite Irv Ackelsberg is among the featured guests.

In the face of increasing and changing demands brought on by the recession and the Internet, public libraries across the country are facing the same questions about their future: where should they focus energy and funds? How will they handle their evolving role as a key provider of social services and government resources? Will this changing role alter the way local officials, who provide a majority of library funding, view the library?

The panel discussion will explore these and other issues discussed in the report. Mayor Michael A. Nutter will give remarks, and WHYY’s Dave Davies will moderate. Panelists include the Honorable James R. Roebuck, Jr., member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; Michael DiBerardinis, deputy mayor for Environmental and Community Resources and special advisor to the mayor on the Free Library of Philadelphia; Irv Ackelsberg, president of the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia; Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia; and Thomas Galante, president and CEO of the Queens Borough Public Library.

The event is Wednesday, March 14 at 6 p.m. at Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street. It is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is recommended.
Visit www.pewtrusts.org/libraryevent to register.
Read the report here.

Business Subsidies 101: Take The Money and Run

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

The Allentown Morning Call reports that a plant operated by International Battery in the Lehigh Valley has closed its doors. The facility opened in 2008 with $4 million in incentives from the commonwealth:

International Battery, which opened an Upper Macungie plant in 2008 that was expected to create hundreds of jobs, has abruptly closed without explanation, workers said, surprising local officials who worked for years to attract the company to the Valley...

Phone messages left with various company representatives were not immediately returned. A message left with Wexford Capital, a Greenwich, Conn., hedge fund that invested $35 million in International Battery in 2010, was not immediately returned.

International Battery, which makes rechargeable lithium-ion cells and batteries for the military and industrial uses, was seen as a recruiting win in 2008 when it decided to invest millions of dollars in the Lehigh Valley and create manufacturing jobs.

On that note, I will leave you with the Steve Miller Band.

We need transparency in criticism as well as budgeting

Some critics of Mayor Michael Nutter are calling him out for hiding a real estate tax in his new budget since the budget proposes that after the new market based system of setting property values is put in place, tax rates will be set so that the city takes in an additional $90 million in real estate tax receipts.

There is a just a little bit of truth in the criticism. But most of it is really just hogwash.

In an ideal world, as the city switched to the new system of setting property values that moved them up to reflect market values, the tax rate would simultaneously be adjusted downwards so that the total take from the real estate tax from one year to the next would be roughly the same. Since the new system is supposed to, and most likely will, give us fairer assessments, some people would pay more and other less. But the overall real estate taxes take in by the city would remain about the same.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. Because the property assessment system has been totally broken, the values placed on property for the purposes of the real estate tax have not gone up as the actual market values of those properties have gone up. There has been no city wide reassessment since 2004 and in response to protests other upwards reassessments have been rolled back.

This failure to capture rising real estate market values, along with the recession’s effect on overall tax returns, is why the city had to enact two temporary increases in the property tax rate in the last two years.

My Journal Entry in the Chronicles of "Trying to Fix the Vacant Land Problem"

I'd hoped to write here earlier about my work on all of this, the "land bank bill" introduced by Councilwoman Sanchez and the new vacant land policy being proposed by Mayor Nutter, and respond to some of the recent online discussion. No way it doesn't sound like an excuse, but I've been busy.

As most of you know, I work as a lawyer and legislative assistant in Maria Quinones Sanchez's office. There are a lot of ways I could spend my time in this job, and use my expensive education to try to help the city. But so far, since my focus is housing and vacant land, by far most of my time is spent navigating our land acquisition and disposition systems. That's helping, or failing to help, constituents get abandoned private land and publicly-owned land - elderly Puerto Rican couples who have been growing food across the street from their house for 20 years; nonprofits looking for more secure space; churches trying to stabilize their blocks; urban farmers; artists creating galleries; activists desperate to keep drug dealing and all the associate violence from metastasizing in empty buildings and lots. Nothing moves, or nothing moves without a truly epic amount of unnecessary work. It's Sisphysian. It's endless. It's wasting my time and my tax-funded salary. (For the record, it's not that big of a salary.)

Yesterday our great architecture columnist Inga Saffron meditated on Twitter that the problem moving that vacant land out of public inventory is "politics." (And, mostly mystifyingly, that "city policies and politics encourage owners to use vacant lots for parking, billboards & other unproductive uses.") This is seeing the symptoms and misdiagnosing the disease.

As far as I see, glaring problem number 1 is our lack of modern and coherent computerized infrastructure to manage vacant land. Glaring problem number 2 is current policies for acquisition, disposition, and pricing that do not match the needs or market conditions of most neighborhoods in the city. Both of those keep land stuck for years, often decades. Our Council office tries to help these stuck wheels move for our constituents and developers, but sometimes we are an obstruction. That's because glaring problem number 3 is lack of affirmative land use planning that would give us some metrics to agree what uses should go where. For a given proposed transaction, we don't get meaningful information about who the applicant is, what they want to do, whether they can actually do it, and then we have figure out whether we think what they want to do makes any sense, because we get no meaningful planning or policy guidance as to whether, say, selling a residentially-zoned lot to someone who lives a block away for parking is a good idea. Which is all not to defend or condemn "councilmanic privilege." But that practice exists now in the vacuum created by a dysfunctional system, and in part fills its gaps. If we get to a future system that is computerized, more transparent, and has written policies, the Council role in land disposition - whatever it ends up being - is going to function a lot differently.

Which brings me back to my first link, Patrick Kerkstra's article from this week about where we are with all this. If and when the city launches its "front door" to coordinate land sales, several big steps will have been taken. The Redevelopment Authority commissioned and is implementing a new database system that will contain files that are now inaccessible, and allow oversight and tracking of application status. That door will be at least cracked for more accurate pricing methods, appeal of absurd appraisals, and reduced or nominal price for a greater range of uses - uses the city already subsidizes one way or another and tries to encourage left and right in neighborhoods that have, as Dan pointed out in that Twitter conversation, negative land value.

But we'll still need a land bank, which is just a way of saying 'a more efficient vehicle for handling vacant land.' Otherwise there are still different agencies, different incentives and motivations, fragmented title, duplication and overlap, and time and money lost internally coordinating all of that. We've had massive cuts of the federal and state dollars that we've been using to run our current housing and land agencies and programs, and the cuts are continuing to come. We can't afford to leave the existing "alphabet soup" in place. We need to look top to bottom, probably with outside help from a foundation or university, and think about how we need to restructure that system to avoid duplication and get the most out of those shrinking resources.

The land bank bill, as introduced, is not meant to create a new and separate entity. It starts with the premise that whatever agency manages acquisition and disposition of surplus vacant land should have that as its mission and specialized focus (and the Public Property Department should be free to concentrate on managing active public facilities, and not need to play real estate agent). It also acknowledges that the Redevelopment Authority (PRA) must exist in some measure, because only it has legal power from the state to condemn blighted land for redevelopment. The land bank would exist in relationship to the PRA (either the PRA as an arm of the land bank, or vice versa) - one staff, one office space, but distinct rules and governance structures based on existing legal requirements and what fits the city's needs.

Some of the improvements mandated by the bill: a computerized, accessible inventory of public and privately owned vacant land; a system for getting ongoing notice of the status of vacant parcels; a strong role for community plans and the coming Comprehensive Plan; written policies that are updated biannually through a public process (a huge change!); requirement for ethics and conflict of interest policies, developed in the same public way; annual reporting.

But there's still a lot to figure out, including the best way to structure and improve Council's role in the process. Cleveland has a sign-off sheet, where all agencies, including the legislature, okay each transaction. We could have hearings, which have the advantage of being public but the disadvantage of taking time and resources. There's no magic answer, but the land bank is essentially a blank canvas to structure a system that actually makes sense, and the discussion is still active and open as to what that should look like - please continue to comment and give feedback, and please advocate loud and hard for change. The day I can permanently delete my Excel spreadsheets tracking hundreds of uncompleted property transfers seriously can not come soon enough.

adultBasic: A Year of Struggle for Many Working Pennsylvanians

A blog post by Chris Lilienthal, originally published at Third and State.

One year after Pennsylvania’s adultBasic program came to an end, many working Pennsylvanians are still struggling with the lose of this critical lifeline. Anxiety and financial pressures are common, and many are allowing chronic health conditions to go untreated.

That was the message delivered by health care providers, advocates and former adultBasic enrollees during a media conference call hosted by the Pennsylvania Health Access Network (PHAN) Wednesday.

adultBasic was created more than a decade ago to provide affordable health coverage to low-income working Pennsylvanians who either lacked job-based coverage or were denied outright because of pre-existing health conditions.

But when a funding agreement between the commonwealth and Pennsylvania’s four Blue Cross/Blue Shield plans expired, Governor Corbett opted to end the program rather than renegotiate the agreement. The adultBasic program shut down one year ago today.

Rick Mossinghoff, a part-time worker from Robinson Township, Allegheny County, was one of the Pennsylvanians who suddenly found himself without health coverage. He opted to enroll in Special Care – a plan for low-income people offered by the Blues and touted by the Corbett administration as an alternative. His new premiums were five times the cost of adultBasic.

“When I had adultBasic, I was able to have physical therapy to combat the arthritic degeneration in my hip,” Mossinghoff said during the conference call. “That all ended, when I lost my coverage – because Special Care doesn’t cover any rehabilitative or physical therapy care.”

Must Read: The Inequality Governor Strikes Again

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

One of the factors driving the increase in inequality prior to 2000 was the growing gap between the wages of colleges graduates and everyone else.

Therefore, a straightforward policy to limit the rise in inequality would open the door to college attendance for the children of low-income adults. However, as the figure to the right illustrates, gifted but low-income children are much less likely to complete college compared to similarly gifted but high-income children. In fact, these gifted, low-income children are as likely to complete college as the least academically gifted, high-income children.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports this morning that proposed budget cuts by the Corbett administration are likely to lead to fewer courses offered at satellite locations of the State System of Higher Education. Satellite locations are more likely to serve students from low-income families.

Pennsylvania families can't afford this budget

Earlier today, Governor Corbett's office released the following glowing statement about his budget:

"A Welcome Change."

That is how one commentator recently described Governor Corbett's 2012-13 proposed budget.

From all over Pennsylvania, people and organizations are voicing support for the Governor's budget. The Sun Gazette described Pennsylvania as "being boxed into a fiscal corner," forcing the Governor to make tough decisions. The Patriot News called the Governor's plan to reform foster care a "win-win situation." The Reading Eagle praised the budget for its continued phase out of The Capital Stock and Foreign Franchise Tax.

The budget has been described by job creators and business leaders as close to perfect. The Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association called the budget a "commitment to fiscal discipline, pro-growth policy." The National Federation of Independent Business called it a "solid fiscal blueprint for Pennsylvania." At Penn State University's College of Agricultural Science, the budget was greeted as "excellent news."

Here's how I would have written it:

The Santorum Problem

In January, a coalition of environmental groups led something like 200 people in a rally against natural gas drilling in the Pennsylvania Capitol’s Main Rotunda. Folks came to the Capitol angry that the legislature looked intent to take away the right of towns to use Zoning to control how close well pads are built to their homes and schools. A frequent shout at rallies like this is some version of, “Let’s vote ‘em out!” Legislators never seem that afraid of losing their jobs. Legislators continue to sell out their constituents in the interest of the rich and powerful, I believe, because of The Santorum Problem.

This is The Santorum Problem: if an incumbent who serves industry actually does get voted out of office on his merits (which is rare), there will always be a much better paying job waiting for him after he loses. If an elected loses for protecting corporate America, corporate America has a golden parachute ready for him.

Click read more to see how I spell this out in a bit more detail...

Buzz Bissinger spouts off on race and Jeremy Lin - and we all cringe

I get it. There are plenty of people who don’t like the Knicks, are sick of two weeks of Linsanity and consider the Jeremy Lin hype to be premature and therefore overrated.

And then there’s Buzz Bissinger:

You know it’s quite the man who thinks there are worse things you can call Jeremy Lin – AND THEN PROCEEDS TO NAME THEM. All the while, reminding Asians of our place on the racial slur ladder, touting that racial slurs haven't hindered Lin's success (at least in the last 17 days), and making sure he cites other black athletes to legitimize this type of thinking.

Here are more Buzz-kills:

  • ”But I don’t think fans are going wild over him now because of his breaking the Asian-American pro-basketball barrier. They like him because he is talented and exciting, at least so far. They also like him because he is light-complected and, in his Christian beliefs and prayer penchant, echoes much of white America.” (Jeremy Lin: Reality checking the hype, Daily Beast)
  • WARNING ALERT: THE FOLLOWING MAY BE CONSIDERED POLITICALLY INCORRECT AND INAPPROPRIATE ON SEVERAL LEVELS. REPEAT THIS IS A WARNING ALERT. IF YOU ARE OFFENDED, SKIP OVER, OR LIGHTEN UP AND GET A LIFE.YOU CAN HANDLE THIS: He has not solved Michael Vick’s dog-killing problem that continues to make him the most hated athlete in America, although he could by opening a Vietnamese-style restaurant with him and carefully planning the menu together. (OK, OK So Jeremy Lin is on fire, Daily Beast)

So, yeah, let’s start with a few things.

I don’t know what racial universe Bissinger lives in, but one in which he calls Asians “light complected” and dismisses anti-Asian racial stereotypes as not rising to a level of real concerns is pretty much beyond comprehension. It’s a bizarre black-white racial paradigm in which Asians have made an unwelcome entry and must therefore be equated with white privilege and whose singular breakout success must be posited in direct opposition to the success of black athletes.

That narrative devalues the unique experience and history of Asians in America and the reality of anti-Asian racism and violence. It also misses the much broader showing of multiracial solidarity and consciousness raising which has grown as a result of Lin's presence on the national stage.

Combine and Cut: Governor's Block Grant Plan for County Human Services

A blog post by Chris Lilienthal, originally published at Third and State.

A week after Governor Tom Corbett rolled out his state budget, many people are still trying to make sense of it.

Perhaps the biggest reshuffling in the Department of Public Welfare budget involves the expansion of the Human Services Development Fund, a flexible funding stream used for a wide variety of human services at the county level. This fund has been repeatedly reduced over the past few year. The new budget combines and cuts funding for other programs into a single Human Services Development Fund Block Grant.

All told, the new block grant is funded at nearly $674 million. That reflects a cut of more than $168 million, or 20%. Portions of a variety of health and human service programs ranging from homeless assistance to mental health services to protecting children from abuse would be impacted (see the table below).

Syndicate content Syndicate content